The situation in the US regarding the novel Coronavirus is becoming more serious by the day. The NBA season has been officially postponed and the NHL will likely follow suit. We’re all concerned; there’s no getting around the fact that this is a global health scare that hasn’t been seen on this planet since the Spanish flu 100 years ago.
A pandemic on this scale is a first in the age of the internet, social media, and constant news bombardment. It makes sense that we all want to keep ourselves informed and stay up to date on the latest developments, but a new study finds refreshing your Twitter feed every two minutes for coronavirus updates is probably going to do more harm than good for your overall mental state and ability to remain calm and collected.
When a new and mysterious infectious disease appears on the world stage, there is an inherent lack of verified facts available. So, when we spend all day reading conjecture, predictions, and opinion, all of those articles don’t make us feel better informed. They actually do the exact opposite. The more news one reads the more uncertain and uneasy they feel about the entire situation.
The study, conducted at Ohio State University, focused on the Zika virus. However, it’s authors say their findings certainly apply to the Coronavirus news cycle as well.
“The Zika virus and the coronavirus have important things in common,” explains Shelly Hovick, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University, in a press release. “In both cases, they are shrouded in uncertainty and have received a lot of media attention. Our research looks at how people seek and process information when there is so much uncertainty.”
Participants in the study who rated themselves as “highly knowledgeable” regarding the Zika virus were also the most likely to believe they didn’t know enough. This suggests that when there is a lack of confirmed information on a new infectious disease, consuming any and all news articles on the topic isn’t going to make you feel better or more informed.
“We found that the more people thought they knew, the more they realized they didn’t know enough,” says lead study author Austin Hubner, a doctoral student in communication at Ohio State. “With the Zika virus, even the experts themselves didn’t know much at the time. That’s the same thing we’re seeing with the coronavirus, and that’s scary for people who believe they are at risk.”
Research for this study was conducted in December 2016, among 494 Florida residents of childbearing age. Florida was used at the time because it accounted for the highest number of locally transmitted Zika cases in the US.
The survey given to respondents asked about their level of knowledge on the Zika virus, their general attitude about seeking out news, how they processed what they read about Zika, and their plans for staying informed moving forward.
Zika is an especially scary and high risk for pregnant women because the virus is known to cause birth defects. So, it wasn’t all that surprising that pregnant or soon-to-be pregnant women and their husbands participating in the study indicated that they were especially concerned or scared about the virus in Florida at the time.
However, many men and women not planning on having children anytime soon expressed the same levels of concern about the virus. This brings up another important finding from the study; lack of information on new threats like the coronavirus often leads to people who are really at a very low-risk level feeling especially in danger after reading news article after news article.
Even though most people infected with Zika don’t show any symptoms, many still felt they were in danger.
“Novel risks like Zika or coronavirus may make some people react differently than well-known risks like cancer or the flu,” Hovick says. “Even if the data suggest someone is at low risk, the lack of information may make some people feel they are at high risk.”
The study also came to a number of additional conclusions, with one being the revelation that people are more likely to seek out news on a new disease if they feel they are expected to by their peers. This could definitely apply to the coronavirus. It feels like it’s the only topic on everyone’s mind, so why wouldn’t you start browsing news articles?
The answer to staying safe and informed through this pandemic is somewhere in between staying up all night reading news stories and completely shutting yourself off from the world. It’s important to stay informed, but reading every single comment or story on the coronavirus is only going to cause unneeded anxiety. Check the news a few times per day, and perhaps most importantly, try and limit what you read to reports from legitimate public health agencies.
The full study can be found here, published in Risk Analysis.